Advice for New Bartenders: Derek Brown

Derek BrownDerek Brown
Co-Owner of The Passenger, Columbia Room, Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, and Southern Efficiency, Washington, DC

DIY

I was born in one of the coolest cities in the world, Washington, D.C. At least I thought it was cool (still do, by the way) because we had great punk bands. I’d go to shows at 14-years-old and some slightly older kids, let’s say 16-years-old, were booking them, playing in them, making ‘zines about them. They’d have Go-Go shows at night and we’d take over during the day with punk rock matinees. We never ever thought that this would become a movement or that these bands would become famous. For my friends and me, we just listened to one mantra: DIY. Do it yourself.

So, when I started bartending, I never thought about the fact that we didn’t have cocktail spoons behind the bar. I don’t mean that they didn’t exist. I mean that they weren’t de facto bar equipment. When I found out that some drinks were supposed to be stirred, I just grabbed an ice-tea spoon and began stirring with the spoon handle clenched in my fist, bent inward, rotating my elbow. I call that the chicken wing. If that wasn’t horrible enough, at least it was better than “swisheling,” which I saw other bartenders doing. They would swish around the ingredients with ice in a circular motion and that was somehow supposed to blend the drink.

Either way, I didn’t know any better. The Craft of the Cocktail and Joy of Mixology didn’t exist yet. Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard of Jerry Thomas or David Embury. Blogs were a thing but few existed that gave you real, tangible advice. The first time I stumbled on one was Robert Hess’ drinkboy.com, which I found a few years into bartending. It was a revelation.

On his blog, Robert discussed things like orange bitters in a Martini. That really got me going because I wanted to learn. I didn’t know what bitters were let alone orange bitters. It was completely new to me. We did have one crusty, old bottle of Angostura where the paper sleeve around it was soaked through with the dark brown stain of caramel. But orange bitters? I looked everywhere, but not a single liquor store carried them. One of the servers I worked with had a sour orange tree, so I found a recipe and just made my own.

My managers thought I was an idiot. I was, a little. But I was also determined. Whatever you’re one day to do well, you’ll begin by these infelicitous starts and fits, like learning to dance. You mustn’t be too concerned with who’s watching. Your job is to get better. That takes time and practice.

I remember thinking to myself that someone on this planet is the best bartender in the world. I didn’t know who that was. I hadn’t met the people who would begin the cocktail movement, who would become my mentors, but I thought to myself, why not me? Why couldn’t I be the best bartender in the world? So I set out on a path. I wanted to learn everything I could.

Of all the things that make a good bartender — not great, just good — I’ve now determined that this is the sole requisite besides having two hands (and even that is up for debate). You must first wish to be a good bartender. But that’s not my advice. If you’re reading this, you actually give a shit. You actually want to be a good if not a great bartender.

Here’s some real advice:

Take a chance. Bartenders are not a shy race of people. Should you be thwarted easily, you’ll fail. You have to have a little chutzpah. What bartending taught me more than anything is confidence.

Learn every day. Customers are relentless in their inquiries. You can fake it a little but at some point you have to put in the work. Muhammad Ali said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

Be your own idol. Rather than wait for the cocktail movement to happen and its resultant awards and recognition, or anyone to bless our work, many of us just became its foot soldiers. That’s how we rose through the ranks.

That we didn’t have spoons, books or blogs at first is not just me telling you an “I-walked-a-mile-in-the-snow” story. The point is that people started this. It was their drive, passion and obstinacy that started this. They revived a craft that had languished for over a century. They figured it out. They effectively brought it back from the dead.

Now it’s your turn to improve upon that legacy — to start with the work of others and create your own body of work. It’s truthfully what I learned going to those early punk shows. Take chances and learn everything you can but, in the end, no one is going to do it for you: DIY. Do it yourself.

Read more advice for bartenders from the experts.